Jim and Audrey Walker on their farm in Waimiha (Alex Braae)
Jim and Audrey Walker on their farm in Waimiha (Alex Braae)

PoliticsJune 15, 2019

Climate change and the rural way of life

Jim and Audrey Walker on their farm in Waimiha (Alex Braae)
Jim and Audrey Walker on their farm in Waimiha (Alex Braae)

The government’s environmental policy is creating major tensions in farming communities. Alex Braae went to a meeting in Taumarunui to see it play out. 

“We’ve got to get the government’s attention somehow. Okay, we’re not all going to jump on our tractors and drive to Wellington. But we could jump on our tractors and block all the roads for a day and a half, just to get them to listen.”

The comment came from the floor, at a public meeting on carbon farming being held at the Taumarunui Golf Club. It was a rainy day, which meant farmers had some free time. The room was packed and fearful. In question was the future of their town, their district and their way of life.

A while ago, some farmers started talking about the ‘triple bottom line’ – economic, environmental and social. They started assessing themselves on not only how much money could be brought in, but how the farm contributed to the wider community and ecosystem. It’s a concept borrowed from the world of corporate sustainability, and has parallels in the long term view of what farming should be about. Obviously, the performance of the farming world has been mixed on all three, particularly the environmental bottom line, but the mindset is changing.

But a new trend threatens to upend it completely. Recent months have seen a rapid rise in farms being sold to people who intend to turn the land over to carbon farming – in less technical terms, growing trees for carbon credits. Many of the purchases are made through the Overseas Investment Act. It has led to the emergence of a group calling themselves 50 Shades of Green who have been touring rural service towns with dire warnings of the social and economic dislocation that would come with an end to food farming. After the morning meeting in Taumarunui, spokesperson Mike Butterick and his group were heading down country to Mangaweka, with some National MPs in tow.

The group originated in Wairarapa, where the process of land conversions to forestry is already well underway. Huge hillsides that once grazed animals are now being planted with trees, and with that change comes fewer jobs. Statistics provided by the group suggest for every 1000 hectares of farming, seven jobs are created compared to one for forestry. The story on everyone’s lips is of the school in Kumeroa, across the Manawatū River from Woodville, which has lost its teacher. Her husband was a shepherd on a farm now being used for trees. The nightmare scenario for 50 Shades of Green is a depopulated rural world, with nothing but pinus radiata stretching as far as the eye can see, all of it covering land of the sorts of grades that are perfect for animals.

They came to Taumarunui because they see it as “ground zero” for the process. The Ruapehu District is not well off, and Taumarunui itself is a poorer town than tourist hotspots like Ohakune. It sees less of the income that the skifields bring in, and new tourist ventures around the Forgotten World Highway are only just starting to take off. Once it was on the way to becoming a small provincial city, but then it was ripped apart by economic decline. It didn’t happen overnight – the freezing works wasn’t closed until the mid ’90s, but the population is still lower now than it was in the ’80s.

Manuaute St in Taumarunui, where fake storefronts were put in through a competition run by the Youth Council to enliven the area (photo: Alex Braae)

Many people driving in from State Highway Four see only the petrol station and the supermarket next to the motorway, before heading on down the Forgotten Highway. Further into the town there’s a main street with free wifi for the tourists around the bus terminal, a handful of cafes and a lovely Thai restaurant. A few of the shops are thriving, more look like they’re struggling. On Manuaute St, towards the rugby field, the youth council ran a competition to design and install fake storefronts on abandoned buildings to enliven the area. That was a few years ago, and most of them are still there.

What money that does come in tends to come from the farming base of the area. But unlike other parts of the country which have grown wealthy off dairy, kiwifruit and grapes, the farming around the Ruapehu District is mostly sheep and beef. It leaves precious little of a base to start with, but it ties people to the land and the community, for better or worse. That’s underlined in the other major reason why 50 Shades of Green came to Taumarunui. Farmers have long memories, and they’ve seen this all happen before.

Boarded up windows at Waimiha School, which closed due to rural depopulation in 2004 (photo: Alex Braae)

There are few sights more depressing than a boarded up school. The lawn out front of Waimiha School hasn’t grown over, because horses sometimes graze on it. But the planks of wood over the windows tell a story of decline of a community.

I was taken out there by farmer Jim Walker, who has lived in the area since 1976. He and his wife Audrey are among the last locals who remain. She quite literally wrote the history of the area, from being a thriving rural community when they arrived, to the sad state it is in today. The nearby Ongarue School survives, but isn’t faring much better, down to a few dozen students.

The tipping point came in the ’90s, when farming was going through a rough patch. Jim Walker says there was a boom in farm buying for forestry, and at least eight in the region were sold. It doesn’t sound like much, but eight families makes a big difference in rural areas. “It really knocked the cohesiveness of the community,” said Walker. “It took about ten years for the school to close, because we went from about 70 kids in the ’80s, down to about eight.” He says farm amalgamations also played a role, but less so because it at least kept some people around.

But the cascade kept coming. “We lost the school, and that was where the community had always gathered. We had the sports club as well, and we’ve just managed to hang on to that. But it’s taken a really big effort from a committed part of the community. We still have a license, and have an open night twice a month. But it’s all voluntary, except for the lady who we pay to come and do the cooking. All the bar staff are voluntary.”

Jim and Audrey are not young anymore. “It’s been a real struggle, Audrey and I have been part of it for a long time. But you sort of think, who’s going to pick up the challenge?” There used to be a shop, and a mechanic’s garage in Waimiha. There used to be a rugby club by the train lines at Ongarue. They’re all derelict now.

Part of the derelict timber mill out near Waimiha, which now attracts tourists as a ghost town (photo: Alex Braae)

Driving through the area, there are signs of it everywhere. Some of the old farmhouses haven’t been occupied for many years, and have got the point where it’s just “a matter of someone pushing them over,” says Jim. The old mill looks like something out of the wild west, and survives only as a tourist attraction for cyclists doing the timber trail.

The way that forestry gets done around the Ruapehu District doesn’t have to be in boom and bust cycles, with workers just driving in and leaving forever when the work is done. Jack Burgess is proof of that. He and his partner moved to the area for a forestry job when they realised they were about to become parents. They live about 20 minutes drive down the Forgotten Highway, so he shares the concerns people living rurally have about things like schools.

Jack Burgess was in the room for the Fifty Shades of Green meeting, sitting near the back. As a guy in his late twenties, he was also among the youngest people there, and as far as I could tell was the only person actually involved in forestry. He joked that he was outnumbered 100-1, but he was wrong – it was really more like 200-1. For much of the meeting he was left ruefully shaking his head at the comments made by others, but mostly kept his thoughts to himself, only piping up to interject on a point around applications under the Overseas Investment Act.

“It’s ironic really, but it is what it is,” he said about the concerns over land use. After all, farming itself was the original conversion for the whenua of Aotearoa – before the arrival of Europeans in particular, and Māori to a lesser extent, the country was utterly blanketed in forests. Some European settlers, particularly Scandinavians, were brought to New Zealand specifically to cut down forests in the area that has now given birth to 50 Shades of Green. “You almost have to laugh really, because New Zealand was once covered all in bush. Then a whole lot of settlers came here and turned it into productive farmland.”

A digger slowly working through a massive hillside of pine trees being harvested, north of Waimiha (photo: Alex Braae)

The company Burgess works for doesn’t plant pine, they plant coastal redwood. It’s also not a native tree, but it’s a much higher value product than the commodity wood produced by pinus radiata. The planting takes place in seven year cycles, so that there’s a more sustainable supply of both work and timber throughout the cycle. As a higher value product, it also requires pruning, which requires skilled workers who can be employed for the summer. There is also a fair bit of maintenance that forestry operators have to employ people to do, such as earthworks and track repairs.

On the economic side, Burgess says one major problem with the way forestry is done now is that very little of the processing happens in the area where the trees are grown. The loss of mills has had a major impact on the overall economic profile of the region, but they’re pretty much all gone now. “We’ve got a long history of making mistakes and not learning from them,” says Burgess, echoing concerns around a lack of clear planning shared by the farmers in the room.

Hanging over all of this is the elephant in the room – climate change. 50 Shades of Green go to great pains to stress that they are not climate change deniers. But they see the Zero Carbon Bill as “idealism, rather than realism,” and want it put on hold. There’s a clause in the Paris Accord that they keep coming back to – that climate change adaptation and mitigation should take place “in a manner that doesn’t threaten food production.”

Mike Butterick introduces himself as “a proud New Zealander, and more to the point I’m a proud rural New Zealander.” His presentation to the room followed one from National’s climate spokesperson Todd Muller, who was practised and polished. By contrast, Butterick’s style was brusque and direct. “We’re not anti trees,” he said, “so long as they’re the right tree, in the right place, not the wrong tree in the right place. What we’re seeing now with the conversions is the wrong tree in the wrong place – they shouldn’t bloody be there.”

His big concern was the pace of change happening across rural New Zealand with planting. “The government [is] telling us it’s not happening, it’s not a radical change. But they’re talking 2017 provisional figures – they’re out of touch.” He described a meeting he had been at the week before, where an MPI rep had told the group that they hadn’t seen an increase in land price figures. The day before the meeting, REINZ figures had been released showing farm prices had risen on the back of sales to forestry interests. Butterick blamed overseas investment and government policy settings for that.

“The OIO [Overseas Investment Office], you get a free pass. If you want to go buy a farm in New Zealand for sheep and beef, don’t even bother trying. You’ll spend 200 grand and they’ll tell you no. OIO for forestry? Go for your life. You don’t have to prove any betterment for New Zealand. Why not?” He reels off stories of farms that are now being planted with trees, throwing out names like Pongaroa and Pahiatua and adding how much above market value they went for. “What’s Wairoa going to look like if the meatworks close down? It’s the biggest risk for provincial businesses going forward.”

A social media image put out by 50 Shades of Green (via Facebook – 50 Shades of Green NZ)

The ‘social bottom line’ is what drives 50 Shades of Green. Its members aren’t worried about the economic performance of their own farms, as such; rather they worry that their communities will be pulled apart through conversions. Moreover, they think the Zero Carbon Act imposes unfair costs on farmers through its methane targets. Butterick’s pitch is that New Zealand’s farming is environmentally better than that of the rest of the world, so it doesn’t make sense for food production here to slow.

But climate scientists say the world is currently producing far too much carbon and methane for any sort of liveable future. Methane in the atmosphere is surging – which isn’t necessarily attributable to ruminant animals, but they don’t help. And atmospheric carbon levels are now higher than they’ve ever been in human history. Climate change is absolutely running away from humanity, and one of the major tools to stop it (in conjunction with massive emissions reductions) is to plant lots and lots of trees, and leave them in place forever.

It’s alternative solutions to that problem where 50 Shades of Green veer into controversial territory. Their case for the social benefits of farming is clearly strong, but their environmental points can go in extreme directions. According to a pamphlet called ‘Inconvenient Truths about the Zero carbon bill and subsidised tree planting’, published on their website, and handed out at the Taumarunui meeting, their major solution for emissions reduction is fewer people.

A section of the ‘Inconvenient Truths’ pamphlet put out by 50 Shades of Green. Right in the centre of the big red circle is “one fewer person” (Image: 50 Shades of Green)

They accuse the government of “speaking with a forked tongue,” because of a lack of population policy. And they hit out at other high emissions industries, saying “current policy promotes long distance tourism for visitors and New Zealanders. Planting trees to offset our extravagant lifestyle is a short term band aid.” It’s the sort of talk – were it coming from an environmental group – that would get them accused of eco-fascism. The author of the pamphlet could not be reached for comment about what mechanisms would be used in such a population policy.

It all underlines the fact that even if farmers are looking at a ‘triple bottom line’, those lines will inevitably be in competition with each other. The government’s efforts to navigate through that appear broadly unpopular among the farming world. And there are politicians poised to take advantage.

Regional economic development minister and NZ First MP Shane Jones, the self styled champion of the regions, lion of the provinces, presents an image of himself as the benevolent saviour of rural New Zealand. In this provincial room, his name was mud.

“Provincial Growth Fund? Should’ve called it the Provincial Death Fund,” quipped one man from the floor, to widespread nodding. The PGF was meant to be New Zealand First’s ticket back into parliament at the next election, having spread enough largesse around the regions to push their way back over 5%. In some areas it has been popular and effective. In others, it has clearly become a liability for the party.

It wouldn’t have been an easy room for Mr Jones in any case. A former National member whose 18 years of party service included chairing an electoral campaign in King Country for former PM Jim Bolger estimated that the vast majority of the room would have been either National members or supporters. The party responded in kind, sending along Muller, Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger, and local Rangitikei MP Ian McKelvie.

“Why haven’t we got Shane Jones here?” called out a man. “We don’t like them, but they are the government, so why aren’t we making some effort to get the players who are creating this cock-up in front of people like this?” He got a response from a guy at a nearby table – “the only way to do that is to go to Wellington.”

In an interview on Newstalk ZB, Shane Jones described activist farmer groups as “stalking horses for the National Party.” But in the meeting, it seemed like the opposite dynamic was playing out. Todd Muller delivered his speech on the party’s climate change policy to a room of stony faces. It appeared to be more of an exercise in National trying to show they were on the side of farmers, rather than farmers showing support for the party. After all, farmers have no real need to grab the attention of National – they’re in opposition, and it’s the government 50 Shades of Green are trying to influence.

“I’d like to address this question to the National party,” came another question. “Why aren’t you guys creating a huge uproar in parliament over this, rather than making a big hue and cry about that thing you did with the search tool on the website?” It earned a chuckle, and forced Todd Muller back to his feet. The party have so far been attempting to walk a very fine line between supporting the Zero Carbon Bill and trying to moderate aspects of it, like watering down the proposed Climate Change Commission to an advisory role.

Extinction Rebellion protesters marching towards BP New Zealand’s head office in Newmarket (Image: Carl Naus)

Muller strongly suggested that the party would stop supporting the bill if the methane reduction targets in it weren’t reduced further. That would put the bill in very dangerous territory, with NZ First then in a position to hold it to ransom. He accused the Greens of being ideological, rather than pragmatic, about their approach to climate change, and being overly influenced by “ridiculous and alarmist” groups like Extinction Rebellion.

A hell of a fight is coming over the future of the legislation. Environmental groups like Generation Zero mobilised in huge numbers to dominate the submissions process the first time they went out, to the point where the vast majority called for reductions of all greenhouse gases to net zero. That isn’t how the current version now looks, having been softened through parliamentary negotiations.

But another round is coming up, and will likely be far more intense. Federated Farmers and Beef and Lamb NZ both had people there, and the meeting concluded with a discussion of how submissions to parliament could be made. Instructions were going to be sent out to members of both groups around the country. Farming organisations have traditionally been among the most well-organised and effective political machines in the country, and they’re ready to make their influence felt.

As for the farmers themselves, they’re not going anywhere. There were few cheers going up at the Taumarunui meeting, but the biggest one came in response to a comment about the future of the district. “What are we going to do,” shouted the man, “all pack up and go and live in Auckland? Hell no!”

Keep going!